Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Songs About Being 16 Years Old

Sam Cooke Only Sixteen
Sixteen was a great age.  For me, I had a job and was discovering great music.  I didn't have a girlfriend, and that meant I could devote my money and time to buying albums.  On my 16th birthday, my sister drove me to the local record shop. She wanted to get me a birthday gift, so she said that I could buy any album in the store.  I chose the Buzzcocks album Love Bites.  It was an import, but my sister was cool with extra cost.  Love Bites has a track titled Sixteen Again.  It was one of many great songs on that album.  I made sure to play it on my birthday, and went back to it many times that year.  The lyrics to that song were pretty much spot on.  It wasn't so much a song about what it was like to be sixteen, but more about what it felt like to go back and be that young again.  I didn't get it at the time, but the song rings true none the less.

I suppose that this Buzzcocks song about "looking back" has a common partner in the Sam Cooke song titled Only Sixteen.  Cook's song is a simple memory of a time when he rushed to give up his love freely, albeit only one year earlier in his life.  Cooke claims in the song that he has now aged another year, and learned his lesson.  Funny stuff. There are a number of songs about being sixteen, but these two are about reflecting. 


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Noise or Music | Is Sonic Youth One or the Other?

Sonic Youth Noise Band
We have all heard about the art gallery trick where someone hangs a panting created by a three year old and nobody can tell the difference between that piece and another that was made by some well established artist.  The Sonic Youth London show from their 1984 tour is something akin to a musical version of that trick.  By that time, Sonic Youth had been performing their noisy style of music for nearly three years. The band went on stage, only to find that their equipment was malfunctioning.  Thurston Moore trashed the musical gear out of frustration, and the show was over in minutes.  Still the reviews were positive.  Did these reviewers not know that they weren’t watching an actual show?  No, they thought that the noise and destruction was the event.  It’s just like seeing a splattering of paint on canvas created by a toddler, and thinking it to be some great work by a modern artist.  If you can’t tell the difference between a mistake and the sounds that the band intended to create, what separates their sound from audio garbage or noise? 

What does one also say about their second album titled Bad Moon Rising?  The band claimed that it was a collection of melodies that they used live just to take up time while other members made sure that their guitars were in tune.  American audiences ignored the album, but that same English group of fans and reviewers that thought their non-show was great, found Bad Moon Rising to be worthy of purchase.  The band's musical filler received praise!   
On the Sonic Youth album titled Death Valley, there is a song titled I Love Her All the Time.  I’m one minute into the song, and have yet to hear any discernible structure.  After what feels like ages, there is a beat to follow.  Thank goodness for the drummer.  Sadly, that beat is layered with dissonant vocals. Without the discipline of a very solid drummer, where does the art start and garbage finish?

I suppose that I would have to go back to 1985 to truly understand what the band meant when they released EVOL.  I can’t listen to this this piece of work for the first time in my life (27 years after it came out,) and say what I really think about the songs, because I don’t have a frame of reference.  If anything, the song Expressway to your Skull is worthy of praise, simply because it has enough song structure to make it worthy of spending a moment to try to figure out. But alas, 2.5 minutes into the song the wheels come off.  It’s another noise fest until the verse comes back for just 30 seconds.  After that, we’re treated to another four minutes of dull, muted noise.  I’m sure that some would say that I don’t appreciate the band for whatever they did or said, or tried to say back “in their day.”  They certainly weren’t Throbbing Gristle.  They weren’t Brian Eno.  They stuck with their style of dissonance and mystery, and up until the fall of last year, the band was plying their craft in front of thousands of fans.   
Is it Music or Noise?
What I struggle with is this:  What is the difference between dissonance and noise?  As a musician, I often ask myself how I can make a song better.  Are we communicating what we feel?  Does the audience know what we are trying to do here when we play this song?  Can you tell the difference between an honest mistake and what is intentional?  If you can’t, is this music? Is it art?  Is it junk? Finally, I must ask one more question. If you do play noise, what makes your songs the best that they can be?  Is it a matter of the song having more or less noise, more or less vibrato, louder or softer vocal ranting or harder guitar slides against the microphone stand?  That’s the problem with bands like Sonic Youth, is it a three year old slapping paint on a canvas, or a true artist bringing out their best while using only three colors.     

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pretending to be Morrissey and The Smiths at Spoof Fest

As the opening notes to "Bigmouth Strikes Again" from The Smiths started up, I knew this was going to be different.  I was not behind the drums, I was waiting in the wings. I was Morrissey on this night.  Spoof Fest 2008 was going well, and we had a pretty good spot on the roster.  The crowd was thick.  They wanted to see this performance.

I had been back up singing while I played the drums since 1999, but now I had to pull off something very different.  I couldn't hide behind my drums.  As soon as I walked out on stage, the crowd cheered and the rest was almost a complete blur. It felt like the five songs went by in five seconds.  My emotions were a mixture of fright, excitement, laughter, and so much more.  Just before we started our second song, I looked back to see one of the guitar players shaking with fright.  This was his very first show.  It helped me to see that.  I felt like I had to be a model of confidence from that point forward. There was something about seeing how scared he was that snapped me out of my nervousness.

From the start, I made sure to remember my choreography.  I had been practicing Morrissey moves for about three weeks.  I would sing the songs and dance around in our spare bedroom in front of three mirrors.  This was serious practice.  It wasn't a joke.  I'm so glad that I took the time to pretend.  It paid off.  If you have ever watched a Smiths video, you will see that Morrissey has some signature moves like spinning bouquets of flowers around in a propeller motion, pulling at his shirt, and rocking back and forth with one foot on the monitor.  I had those down pat, and added some of my own interpretations of what I saw on YouTube.

We brought large bunches of flowers out on stage, and I happened to play with them in true Morrissey fashion.  I tossed them out to the crowd, spun them around, danced with them and dropped them to the floor.  I tore at my shirt, and flailed about in true Smiths fashion.  I forgot just one verse, and laughed it off after the song was over.  It was fun to make jokes between the songs too.  Reading about the life and times of the band gave me ammunition.  I made cracks about playing a show in Cudahy, my guitar player (Johnny Marr) suing me, and referenced future song lines of my upcoming solo career that had most people laughing and applauding.

Technically, I had to remember to keep my distance from the monitors.  I managed to shoot some pretty serious feedback out through the p.a. speakers when I forgot to keep the microphone upright.  If I backed off too far, I couldn't hear myself sing, and that made it hard to stay on key.  It was all about finding the sweet spots between dancing, gyrating, singing, and moving about.  By the time our final number had started, I felt very confident.  I could get used to being a singer.  It's very intoxicating.  Still, the final notes to How Soon Is Now reminded me that it was time to go.  I was off the stage first, and the rest of the band followed.  I'll never forget that amazing 30 minutes where I got to be the center of attention.  It took around four months to prepare for that night, and it was over in a flash.